Nurse, the screens

We all know there is a lot of bad behaviour in the online world. But does new technology simply allow bad people to behave badly more efficiently? Or is there is something inherently corrupting about the screen-based life – a subject dear to all our hearts after months of lockdown?  

It would have been easy for the five directors of Selfie, a hilarious French portmanteau or anthology film that runs until Friday 19 June at 20:00, to create stories about bad people: trolls, stalkers, fraudsters, catfishers. Instead, they have fulfilled the promise in their subtitle: “On the influence of new media on good people”.

In VLOG, a story we return to throughout Selfie, Fred and Stephanie Perez create an online channel to support their young son Lucas as he copes with a devastating illness. They want to show him that the world cares about him, and they want to show solidarity with families suffering similar health crises. Unfortunately, the process of becoming influencers in the world of childhood illness turns them into monsters.

An early sign of this comes when they take Lucas to hospital. The parents of another child are eager to talk to the famous Perez family and do a selfie video for their own VLOG. Eventually a doctor brings in their little girl. She has leukaemia. “Leukaemia,” says Stephanie. “It’s not easy. They’ll have a hard time with their SEO. There are so many of them.”

As time goes on, circumstances force them to go beyond the subject of childhood illness: they make cooking videos, they video themselves in the supermarket, they even consider making a sex tape. All the time, they keep an eye on their “likes”, going so far as to contemplate buying them from a like dealer. They are addicted to attention, and we cannot despise them.

In Le Troll: romain epistolaire, Bettina is a shy schoolteacher and would-be novelist. A proud technophobe, she is forced to used a tablet in classes and teach her charges “digital continuity” rather than the French literature that is her passion. Soon, however, she has learnt what “IRL” and “troll” mean and taken to the new medium. She gives herself the handle @merteuil, which some will recognise as the name of the manipulative and seductive countess in Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a novel told entirely in letters. Then she barracks a young comedian she sees on the television and is delighted when he responds in friendly fashion. The result is a highly amusing and rather touching story of fantasy and reality that manages to be both up to the minute and classically literary.

Florian, in 2.6/5, is the online dater from hell. Nonetheless, he is determined to raise his desirability score in the Tinder-style dating app he uses. He finds a hacker who fixes it for him, and he wins his perfect woman, only to find he has become a “Ken”, a perfect man with no flaws, personality or sexuality. He rejects her in search of true love, only to go plunging down the social and desirability scale, ending up as a bicycle deliverer of fast food.

Online shopping and its perils are the subject of Recommended For You. Romain lives his life according to the algorithms on his chosen shopping site. When, for no apparent reason, it tells him to buy a fishing rod, he does so. But then he discovers that he used to fish with his father when he was a child, and becomes convinced of the algorithms’ mystical powers. Only when the algorithm interferes with his married life does he begin to have doubts.

Finally, in Smileaks, a wedding is due to take place on an island with no mobile phone signal. The struggle to find a signal drives several guests to distraction. Some even wade out into the water. Meanwhile, the boyfriend of the groom’s modish “best woman” discovers that groom and said best woman were previously in a relationship. This plot is put into perspective when the guests learn that there has been a massive leak of data from “Smileaks”, an online service with 500 million users, with apocalyptic effects on all their relationships.

These are entertaining and stylish films with an ease and verbal fluency that is distinctively French. Obviously, with five directors at work the tone can be uneven, and some of the sketches wear out their welcome quicker than others. But the standard is high and the way the whole thing is brought together is sophisticated and skilful: aside from the continuity provided by VLOG, segments of which appear throughout Selfie’s 108-minute running time, some of the same characters appear in more than one story.

The fact that just about everyone concerned is without evil intent could have made for a bland movie. Its sharp script ensures Selfie is never that. If we are honest, we will all recognise ourselves in there somewhere.

Selfie is available until Friday 19 June at 20:00. Details here:



©  |  Cheltenham International Film Festival  |  2023